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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 2 ‘A London Symphony’ (1913, rev. 1920 and 1936) [46.42]
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1958) [29.46]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 29/30 March 2015 (2); 9 October 2015 (8), Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, U.K.
ONYX 4155 [76.28]

I can report that this release from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) will form part of a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies and on this evidence it should prove to be a distinguished one. The orchestra has a long tradition of performing Vaughan Williams and in this programme displaying focused concentration, proficiency and enormous energy it responds positively to the clarity of Andrew Manze’s vision. On Onyx, Manze and the RLPO are to issue each year one volume of the Vaughan Williams symphonies and should complete the cycle in the spring of 2019 with Symphonies No’s 7 and 9.

Few commentators would have imagined that Andrew Manze, a specialist in period instrument performance practice, exchanging his baroque violin for the baton, would become established as a leading interpreter of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies. I recall reporting from a Munich concert in 2010 where Manze was conducting the Munich Philharmonic in a programme of Britten and Purcell. That evening Manze’s prowess with the baton was clearly evident and the next day he gave me an interview at his Munich hotel. 

After ‘A Sea Symphony’ it was Vaughan Williams’s fellow composer George Butterworth who encouraged him to write a purely orchestral symphony. Subsequently, Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 2A London Symphony’ was premičred by his friend Geoffrey Toye at Queen’s Hall, London in 1914 just 4 months before the outbreak of the First World War. This is a much revised score and today we normally hear versions with cuts from the original 1913 score. In the 2001 ‘Gramophone Awards’ the late Richard Hickox won the ‘Record of the Year’ for his recording of ‘A London Symphony’ with the LSO on Chandos. It is a wonderful recording that I doubt will be surpassed and worth looking out for, with the added interest of using the composer’s original 1913 version that restores the cuts and includes some 20 minutes of previously unrecorded music. Andrew Manze proves to be an inspiring guide in the ‘LondonSymphony and the RLPO respond to his direction with passion and real assurance. Together they provide an engaging and convincing depiction of Vaughan Williams’s pulsating and multi-faceted vision of the metropolis. The predominant images are of a post-Edwardian London cloaked in fog and shrouded in river mist in the manner of Daubigny and Monet, not forgetting the Manchester scenes of Adolphe Valette. Especially impressive is Manze’s firm grasp of the music’s structure; confidently bringing out the qualities of warmth and lyricism, the performance feels fresh and focused.

Commendable is the swinging forward momentum of the score, tempo changes being made with unforced fluidity, aided by Manze’s adept shaping of the sound. Like several other recordings in the opening movement the playing from the RLPO makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Following the ethereal opening of the slow movement I find the effect of the passage for the single trumpet and horn playing over the strings remarkable. Said to evoke Bloomsbury Square, the atmospheric music to me depicts bleak Fen country on a grey and misty, early autumn morning. Shaped skillfully by Manze from its rather buttoned-up opening the Scherzo gains in confidence and becomes more daring. Here Vaughan Williams is certainly making full use of his glorious dance-like melodies. Containing music of nobility and substance the Finale opens with a plaintive cry of anguish. I find the power and intensity of the orchestral climaxes marvelously stirring. Especially enjoyable is the expressive section that evokes the heady sights, sounds and colours of the crowded London streets from the perspective of Westminster Bridge and The Strand. After the ‘Westminster chimes’ the Epilogue veiled in fog and river mist reveals mystery and ambiguity before fading away to nothing. Manze inspires a towering performance of a great symphony.

Vaughan Williams was an octogenarian when he composed his Symphony No.8 in 1953/55 an anxious time in world politics when the Cold War was gaining momentum. The shortest of his set of nine symphonies the Eighth Symphony was introduced in 1956 by the Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli, to whom the score is dedicated. It was certainly out of step with the progressive compositional schools that were in vogue at the time. The same also applies to the Ninth Symphony and both works are evidently beginning to recover their reputation, as I am beginning to see them programmed more often. The adeptly composed opening movement Fantasia in parts contains a slight bucolic feel. Although slightly less evident than that with Hallé/Elder, Manze brings out a curious cinematic quality from the writing. Especially in the forte passages I am reminded of Miklós Rózsa’s score to the MGM historical epic Ben Hur composed a few years later in 1959. Scored for wind instruments only, the short Scherzo alla Marcia contains similarities to the sound world of Paul Hindemith. Manze’s interpretation of this appealing movement conveys disarming buoyancy and a recurrent quality of mischievous revelling. Scored for strings the emotional heart of the work, the Cavatina, has an elegiac feel with an unerring sense of searching. Manze draws impressive pastoral qualities from the humane writing that evokes a chilly autumn, fenland scene with flocks of birds gathering for migration. The leader’s solo violin part with its uplifting character feels somewhat reminiscent of The Lark Ascending. In the Coda the doleful passage for solo cello that brings the movement to a hushed close is admirably played. The full orchestra combines together in the Toccata: Finale. Here an array of exuberant extra percussion features heavily in the weighty writing. Although the composer described the opening as “rather sinister” Manze brings out a celebratory quality from the music. Throughout the score, in writing that is often mocking, palpably questioning and sometimes strangely disconcerting, the RLPO plays splendidly with a convincing awareness.

Of the alternative recordings of these Vaughan Williams symphonies my two enduring favourites are contained on excellent sets of the complete symphonies. Firstly, the powerfully expressive performances by Sir Adrian Boult with the London Philharmonic Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra. Boult recorded the set in 1967/71 at London on EMI Classics. Secondly, for its stunning musicianship, André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra were recorded in 1968/72 also in London on RCA Red Seal. Of the newer digital recordings I relish the engaging accounts from a projected complete set by the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder recorded live in 2010 at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Sym 2) and in 2012 at BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford (Sym 8). Although I would not wish to dispense with either the Boult, Previn and Elder recordings this excellent RLPO release inhabits the same elevated company.

With Andrew Manze conducting the RLPO the legacy of performing Vaughan Williams is in reliable hands on the evidence of this outstanding Onyx release. Next come Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4, planned for release in March 2017.

Michael Cookson
Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month)



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